KEARNS — Nine U.S. speedskaters stepped forward to defend their coach, who is accused by 14 of their fellow skaters of being physically, verbally and emotionally abusive.
Jae Su Chun was placed on administrative leave Monday morning, just hours after he released a statement denying the allegations in the complaint filed with U.S. Speedskating on Aug. 30. The board of directors for the sport also retained an outside law firm to investigate the allegations and make recommendations on how to deal with the controversy that comes just weeks before the World Cup teams are chosen in competitions at the Utah Olympic Oval.
"At a time when we should be focused on how we are going to take on the world, we are instead forced to defend our coach against baseless allegations of abuse that are nothing more than a false attack on his character," said the statement from Lana Gehring, who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Olympics, and Jessica Smith, who was silver medalist at the 2012 World Championships.
Seven other athletes signed the statement released by the two athletes.
"We do not believe any of the allegations of abuse leveled against our head coach, Jae Su Chun, and assistant coach, Jun Hyung Yeo," they wrote. "We have never seen any abuse take place — physical, sexual, verbal or emotional — and we know these men are not capable of abuse."
U.S. Speedskating spokesman Tamara Castellano said that Jimmy Jang, who also had allegations leveled against him, was actually never an official assistant coach. She said he filled in for someone while another coach was on vacation and that he was coaching U.S. athletes for only a month.
In the wake of the complaint and now the investigation, the U.S. Speedskating board of directors voted to put Chun's assistant Jun Hyung Yeo in charge of the team because while he was included, there were no specific allegations listed against him. Officials felt this would be best for continuity as the World Cup season is just days away.
When questioned about how that would affect those 14 skaters who were part of the grievance, Castellano said that the athletes who filed the grievance are in what they refer to as the FAST program and not training with the U.S. Speedskating's national racing program and will not have to deal with Jun. Athletes do not have to train with the national team to make the World Cup team.
But if those skaters make the World Cup team, it's possible they would be subjected to Yeo's coaching, something that could be problematic for officials. The competition for the World Cup team begins in Kearns on Sept. 27.
Smith and Gehring said that Chun "pushes" them but is only committed to helping them reach their potential, something they appreciate.
"We understand that not every athlete will be happy with Jae Su's training style or his program," they said. "No coach is ever able to make every athlete happy; nor should that be the coach's primary concern. But Coach Chun does as fine a job as anyone of balancing the grueling demands of training at the Olympic level with the personal care and development of his athletes."
On Wednesday, an arbitration request was filed by an attorney representing the skaters who made the allegations of abuse against Chun, Edward Williams, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In the arbitration request, US skater Simon Cho said Chun demanded he tamper with the skates of a Canadian competitor. In the filing, which the Chicago Tribune detailed in a story Wednesday, Cho "later told a teammate in a written message, 'It is my darkest secret and I regret it.'"
The Canadian athlete, Oliver Jean, wasn't able to compete because he had an issue with his skates, the Chicago Tribune reporter.
US Speedskating issued a statement after the Tribune article Wednesday night which read:
"White & Case is conducting a pro bono investigation into certain allegations against US Speedskating's coaches. White & Case has devoted considerable resources to the investigation and is working diligently to complete it. The allegations and counter allegations are serious and the matter is complex. Therefore, there should be no rush to judgment until the investigation is concluded. White & Case has the full support of US Speedkating and the United States Olympic Committee's Safe Sport program, and is endeavoring to finalize its report promptly."